Friday, September 19, 2014

Pope Francis and God’s Mercy in Marriage

My husband, John, and I were married outside of the Catholic Church in 1993. Back in those days we were smarter than the Church. We knew how to run our own lives and didn’t need a patriarchal, bossy church telling us what to do. So we shopped around for the most enlightened church we could find, that was also pretty and would look nice in wedding pictures. Classical music would be good, a nice long aisle and no teachings that infringe on “my body, my choice”. We wanted a male preacher for our wedding, but the possibility of a female preacher needed to be there for some other people who so chose. Next on our list: plenty of seating for our family and a communion service to make the whole thing feel “real”. Pretty deep theological stuff, no?

In His great Mercy, the Lord lead us to a patient and loving preacher who put up with my rabid feminism and un-supple demands and agreed to marry us, though we were not members of his church. After four years of living together, we were finally married.

Much to my surprise, marriage was different. I immediately felt different. I relished being called John’s wife and saying, “This is my husband.” It was very perplexing to me. Why should this antiquated and artificial social construct have such an effect on my well-being? But it undeniably did. Though we never darkened that particular beautiful church’s doors again, I knew that the time we spent there, presenting ourselves to the Lord for a blessing, was important. I just didn’t know why.

Fast forward five years and the not-so-newlyweds were going through our first real struggle. I had injured my back and was awaiting surgery. Through the grace of this suffering Jesus led me back to Himself and eventually to the Church He founded. After asking the Holy Spirit to help me with all of those patriarchal rules I objected to, He removed the scales, one after another, in very short order. Thanks be to God, Jesus brought John along very quickly afterward as well.

With surgery looming and our understanding of Church teaching widening, John and I realized we needed to be married in the Church. We spoke with our pastor, the late, great Fr. Robert Mack, about our situation and he quickly set to work to set things right. We planned our Catholic wedding far more quickly and simply than our first one. It would be two weeks hence, with Mass, just our parents and a few witnesses, no music, no photographer, but entailing three, count them, three Sacraments! After confessing our sins, we lived as brother and sister and refrained from receiving Jesus in Holy Communion until the day of our wedding. Confession, Communion and Marriage sure beat classical music, pretty pictures and an intact, prideful ideology.

On Saturday, June 19th, 1999 (my late grandmother Adele’s birthday) my sister, Cindy, surprised us with wedding flowers. It was a lovely, sunny morning, much like the day of our “first marriage” to each other almost six years before. Fr. Mack married us before the altar at St. Louis Church and took us through the traditional offerings to Blessed Mother and St. Joseph which we were still unfamiliar with. We received Jesus again, but for the first time as husband and wife. We had some treats and champagne back at our apartment afterward and two days later I had the long awaited back surgery. I went into it knowing that God had my hand and had set everything right. One month later, our contracepting ways behind us, we were pregnant with our daughter, Adele. Typical Catholics: pregnant after one month of marriage. Well, I guess it was closer to six years and one month, but with Mercy so great, who’s counting?

I write this little story from our life to illuminate God’s Mercy. The Mercy of allowing us back into the Church with open arms, despite our sinful past, gave us a new start in our marriage and our lives. This mercy set us on the right path. Fr. Mack was the instrument of that marriage and gently, so very gently, led us to all truth by showing us the blessings therein.

This same story is repeated around the world through many couples and many parish priests. It was also repeated on a global stage this past September 14th by Pope Francis. Many have tried to manipulate this beautiful little Sacramental story to demonstrate either that the Pope is somehow changing the nature of Catholic marriage, or to demonstrate that he is an apostate Pope.  Neither is anywhere near the truth. The truth is that Pope Francis is God’s chosen font of Mercy for this our day and time.

It is important to always consider the source when reading about the Church. Does the writer have an agenda? Does the writer speak from Mercy and with the mind of the Church? Does the writer even have a basic understanding of what the Church teaches and why? Consider the source. In an excellent article in National Catholic Register, John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America is quoted saying:

"I think there is a perception out there, especially in some media circles, that Pope Francis is trying to undermine what the Church has taught and what the Church has practiced. I see absolutely no evidence of that. When he’s pressed on issues concerning the Church’s teaching on marriage, on sexuality, he is very firm, saying he is ‘a son of the Church. What he wants to do is simply put the Church’s focus on mercy, on an encounter with Christ as the heart of its life."

As so many other misunderstood actions of our Holy Father have been, this is all about Jesus’ Mercy. As St. Faustina teaches us, we are living in the era of Mercy. Why should we be surprised when our pope welcomes in sinners, offers mercy and healing and then sends them forth, telling them to sin no more? In the homily at their wedding, Pope Francis told the 20 couples that Jesus Christ “will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.”

That’s what a good shepherd does. Catholic author, Charlie Johnston summarized Pope Francis’ works of mercy, especially regarding marriage:

The pope is reported to have mused that a good 50% of all marriages are invalid and is open to the idea of some remarried Catholics receiving communion without having had a proper annulment. This has inspired hope on the left that they have found an unlikely ally in their assault on marriage and the family. It has inspired fear of the same on the right. Both the hopes and fears are the unwarranted fantasies of those incapable of seeing things without the coloring of an ideological lens.

Those who appeal to the law are right that it was an unwarranted permissiveness that opened the gates to the wolves. But what a vanity it is to berate the sheep who were wounded when shepherds charged with defending them helped open the gates to the wolves! Pope Francis has two great charges in this. First, he must care for the wounded and try to nurse them back to health. Second, he must re-erect the fences that keep them safe.

Never forget, God calls all men to salvation. Man was not made for rules, but rules to bring men to salvation. It is a joy to me to see Pope Francis constantly thinking of how best to invite broken men back to salvation. We live in a time of great darkness, but the light is dawning and the darkness cannot overcome it. (

In the end, Mercy is scandalous to the world, foolish and scandalous. The world cannot understand it and therefore has to pervert it according to whatever lens it is trying to view it through. Mercy cannot be viewed through any lens other than the eyes of Christ. Are changes coming regarding the Church’s teachings on marriage? No. Might there be changes in the administration of the Sacraments through the annulment processes and other Church processes? Yes. The teachings don’t change, but with every generation the way we bring folks to those teachings must adapt in order to keep Open Wide the Doors to Christ (to paraphrase St. John Paul II). God and His Truth never change, and never can, but His Mercy is ever new. Thanks be to God.

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